By Esmeralda Bermudez

Los Angeles Times


LOS ANGELES — For the sake of charity, Alex Salnik of San Jose, Calif., has agreed to share his secrets, little mysteries about women that he believes could change your life. Marlaina Ward of Santa Cruz, Calif., will come to your home and bless your baby. And James Grant of Saratoga, Calif., will teach you, in 15 minutes, how to pick a combination lock.

They are a new breed of philanthropists coming together on an online site launched this month, an EBay-like portal that auctions people's skills — juggling, hula-hooping, pie-baking — and connections to raise money for their favorite charities. In its first weeks, has drawn do-gooders from across California and a few other states. They are professionals, young people and stay-at-home moms. And although they might not all have the means to write a check to a charity, they can teach you how to roast a perfect chicken or get you a dinner with the prince of Bali.

The offers are as varied as the causes: Learn to speak Punjabi for as little as $200 to help the mentally ill, lunch with Google super-lawyer David Drummond for $10,000 to promote jazz, have your bathroom painted for $25 to aid a volunteer center.

Whoever has placed the highest bid when the timed auction closes wins the prize.

Money collected from bidders is sent directly to the charities, said Paul Weinstein, one of three Internet start-up entrepreneurs who came up with the site idea a year ago. Five percent goes to, and if an offer is not fulfilled, he said, all the money is returned to the bidder.

"Everybody has something to give," said Weinstein, who lives in the Bay Area. "Now you can take whatever you do, whatever you're good at, and turn it into cash for your favorite charity."

The idea has inspired nonprofits from San Diego to San Francisco to find out the hidden talents of staff members and volunteers. Most are looking for any way they can to boost revenue in a tough economy with growing needs and diminishing grants. Starting next week, charities that raise at least $500 will be awarded another $500 from the site.

So far, almost 400 auctions have been listed, including some from celebrities including Ben Stiller (who will record a greeting on your voicemail to help rebuild Haiti — starting bid, $200) and Rihanna (who will give you one of her concert corsets to help children in need — starting bid, $150).

It seemed obvious to Salnik, a research and development director for a solar company, what he could offer to help cancer research. He did not spend three years on hunting for a mate for nothing.

So for $200, the Moscow native says, he will show you how to conquer online dating — how to read profiles, hide imperfections and learn women's tricks. In essence, he will help you score love.

"Or at least someone you can tolerate for an hour or a day," Salnik said.

South of Los Angeles, Sue Carter, executive director of the Volunteer Center of San Diego, wasted no time mobilizing her troops to make their pitches.

One staffer knew karate. She could teach a women's self-defense class. Another person had connections in Bali. She could set up dinner at the Peliatan Palace with the prince. (As for getting to Indonesia, that would be up to the winning bidder.) Soon, a belly dancer, a hypnotist, a comedian and a professional football player were on board offering their talents.

As of Friday, seven popular auctions promised to deliver almost $1,000 to the center.

That beat the $1.23 and a few minutes of effort it cost to place each bid online, Carter said. "We thought this was a great twist to get more people to participate."

Weinstein and his partners have big ambitions. They say they hope the site one day becomes as recognized as EBay and as successful as Bill Gates' charities. Equipped with a team of about 12 staffers based in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, they want the idea to spread beyond California, to go nationwide, with nonprofits getting out the word to volunteers.

Out in Wilmington, N.C., the buzz reached Kathleen O'Neil last week. The 38-year-old marketing consultant was encouraged by a friend not just to donate by bidding but to market her consulting skills on the site.

Surfing through the hodgepodge of listings, O'Neil soon found herself lured in by an auction: A Bay Area artist offered to paint a portrait of any pet, for a starting bid of $75. The money would go to the artist's local humane society.

O'Neil won the auction, among the first to close on the site, and in six to eight weeks she will have a painting of her 2-year-old, black-and-white whippet, Oliver.

"This was money I planned to spend anyway," she said. "And now I know it went to a good place."